Conditional Divine Covenants

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Question
Are divine covenants conditional, with requirements for loyalty?
Answer
It's very unfortunate, but a lot of Christians, when they hear the word "covenant," in their minds they automatically go, "Well, I know what a covenant is. It's a promise." And we all know that if a person makes a promise, there are no conditions attached to it. They're going to do it no matter what, especially if they "swear" they're going to do it — that kind of a promise. And it's true that God makes promises in his covenants and that he will keep those promises and that they will not fail, but it's a mistake to think that covenants are simply promises. Now, some Christian groups will say that some of the covenants in the Bible are promises, pure and simple, and some of them are conditional, and the way things are worked out depends on what people do. But in reality, if you take a look at the Bible very carefully, you can see that there are always elements of every covenant in the Bible — whether it's Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, or even the new covenant — there are elements or dimensions of each of those covenants that will be fulfilled no matter what. I mean, for example, when God says to Abraham that, "Your family is going to be the family that's going to become the instrument of my grace to the entire world," that's going to happen. It's absolutely going to happen. Now, how it's going to happen, that's another story, but we know that ultimately it's fulfilled in Jesus and the church, beginning with its Jewish roots, that this is the instrument, this is the fulfillment of that call of Israel to be, and that promise that God made that Israel would be that kind of instrument for the entire world. So, there are always dimensions of every covenant that God is ensuring will work out in one way or another. They are promises. But every single covenant also has conditions … conditions that affect the way these promises work out in the lives of individuals and groups of people, because God is not going to fulfill his promises in particular ways with people who rebel against him, but rather he's going to, as it were, go around them, get them out of the picture. He's going to find a faithful people. He's going to fulfill his promises that way. And the reality is that the Bible story is just that. It's a story of how God does make promises in his covenants, but that those promises have associated with them conditions of loyalty to God, and that there are consequences to all of these covenants. Now, in the Bible, the Bible sometimes will emphasize one side of this or the other. Sometimes a particular passage will emphasize the great promises that God makes in his covenants, and other passages will emphasize the conditions that are associated with those promises. But no matter what a particular passage emphasizes, it's always important for us to remember that God's covenants, yes, they are sure, and that God will fulfill what he has promised in one way or another, but at the same time there are conditions that dictate, by God's own free choice, how he's going to do that as people react to the requirement of loyalty that's upon because they are the covenant people of God.

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries and adjunct Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.